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A family sleeps in their car in south Auckland in a show of solidarity for the many homeless people in the city, June 2016 (photo: RNZ)
A family sleeps in their car in south Auckland in a show of solidarity for the many homeless people in the city, June 2016 (photo: RNZ)

SocietyNovember 20, 2018

Why does a Wellington councillor want to charge homeless people to live in their cars?

A family sleeps in their car in south Auckland in a show of solidarity for the many homeless people in the city, June 2016 (photo: RNZ)
A family sleeps in their car in south Auckland in a show of solidarity for the many homeless people in the city, June 2016 (photo: RNZ)

A tale of a Wellington City Councillor, a plaque celebrating a famously compassionate Wellingtonian, and 32 people living in cars in the councillor’s ward.

“Apparently there are now 32 people living in cars in the unrestricted parking area directly below X Road*” the flyer from Wellington City Councillor Nicola Young said. Shockingly, what followed next wasn’t an appeal to support them as the Christmas period begins. Instead, Nicola Young was attempting to re-brand those homeless individuals and families “Freedom Campers”.

Yeah. She did that.

“Introducing parking charges would help,” The Grinch of Lambton Quay said. “So I have asked officers to investigate the options. Frustratingly, there’s no progress to report on the government and mayoral joint working party on ‘freedom campers’.”

Almost as frustrating as not having a home I’d suppose. In an astonishing irony, Young then went on to note her support of the heritage plaques placed by the Council – including one honouring Suzanne Aubert, founder of Wellington’s Home of Compassion.

If you don’t know who Suzanne Aubert is, she’s the founder of the Tory St soup kitchen. She was an all round badass and even started a crèche for children of working parents. Her Home of Compassion was opened in 1907 and it still stands today.

I think that if Suzanne Aubert was alive today she’d basically say that describing society’s most vulnerable people as “freedom campers”, as if not being able to have a home is just a fun wee jaunt, is Massively Fucked Up.

It’s likely Gerard McGreevy, Compassion Administrator for Suzanne Aubert’s Home of Compassion, doesn’t quite think that’s what she’d say, but he did tell me this: “The mission of Suzanne Aubert and the Compassion Sisters has always been and remains support of the most needy in our society without reference to race and of all creeds and none. Suzanne Aubert cared greatly about anyone in distress and did what she could to assist but recognised that all working together with our different skills and resources was the best way to tackle some of these issues and there are agencies such as the Salvation Army who have a great deal more experience and specialist staff in this area which we do not.”

Which translated I think means that Suzanne Aubert would be pissed at Nicola Young. Mayor Justin Lester is also none too happy (probably, or I’m reading into his answers – you decide).

I sent him the flyer and he replied in under an hour. “Under my leadership we would never require payments for people living in vehicles. We will do our best to support them to find a permanent home.”

Ms Young’s views were her own, he said, which we all know is another way of saying fucking hell, this is a headache I do not need.

Her views thankfully are not shared by Mayor Justin and the Council. “The homeless are not freedom campers,” he said stating what should be obvious, but here we are.

“Councillors do not have the ability to make policy changes unilaterally or to direct certain actions be undertaken contrary to Council policy. In every instance my approach and the Council’s approach is that any homeless person is vulnerable and deserves to be treated with dignity. It is our job to provide help and support.”

This means that Nicola Young is shit out of luck if she thinks she can sick “officers” onto these vulnerable families.

The Wellington City Council’s most recent analysis of Wellington homeless and rough sleepers provided some insight into the number of people who are struggling with housing insecurity:

  • 148 people were contacted by outreach – 112 men and 36 women.
  • The most common ages groups are 18-25 years and 25-36 years.
  • 49 of these people were sleeping rough and 48 were begging on Wellington streets.

“All Wellingtonians are my constituents and I have a duty of care to each of them, particularly the most vulnerable Wellingtonians. Any one that is homeless requires additional support and attention and this Council is taking a Housing First approach to reduce homelessness, which is focused on getting every homeless person into a permanent home and providing them the support they need,” Mayor Justin said.

This is good to know given that rents in Wellington are what I’d describe as a fuckload and what TradeMe Property comms advisor Millie Silvester described to me this way: “We’re still finalising our rental data for October but the median weekly rent in Wellington in September was $480 per week (up 6.7% on Sept 2017)”. TradeMe released information in December showing a 70% drop in the number of Wellington rental listings in December 2017 compared to December 2016. Fewer rentals. Costing more.

“Freedom campers are a completely separate consideration,” Mayor Justin said in what I imagine was an exasperated voice. “These are generally holiday makers in certified vehicles with sleeping and toilet facilities, including campervans and large vehicles.”

The Soup Kitchen in Wellington says one of the main barriers faced by struggling Wellingtonians is limitations around the availability of social housing. Wellington City Council and Housing New Zealand provide accommodation and there are some supported accommodation options, but demand outstrips availability at present.

They state on their website that they want to see a wider range of housing options available which would include transitional, specialist accommodation.

Having appropriate accommodation is a basic human right. But that’s not just me saying that. It’s all these agencies working to support our vulnerable communities – including Suzanne Aubert’s Home of Compassion, who point out that many people require extra support to maintain a tenancy. There are skills involved with maintaining a tenancy, and a set of rules to negotiate that can be challenging for some people. If you have limited literacy skills, reading and understanding a tenancy agreement can be difficult. Many people who experience homelessness have complex needs – physical or mental health needs, or addictions – and they also may need good support with these health issues to be able to keep a flat.

It almost seems like it’s being suggested that COMPASSION is needed instead of being a NIMBY who sees vulnerable people and thinks hmmm, how can I move them to an area not as fancy as mine?

We will never know which is the right response, I suppose. In the meantime if you’re at all moved by the plight of families living in cars in our city you can donate and actually support the work of Suzanne Aubert. It’s a great way to show what kind of Wellington we should strive for – a Wellington that’s potentially quite different to Nicola Young’s.

When we contacted Nicola Young she said she wasn’t able to respond to questions until Friday because she has a “busy schedule” and presumably, a real home. We’ll update this story if and when we hear back.

*While Councillor Young chose to name the street where people are living rough, I’ve decided to remove this information to protect those sleeping there and because I’m generally not an asshole.

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